It’s in nobody’s best interest for a government entity to shut down a business, Missoula County Commissioner Michele Landquist says. But it’s the county’s job to make sure businesses comply with health and safety codes.
Sterling and SuzAnne Miller’s equestrian-based business in Lolo doesn’t, and the county took the Millers to court last week in the latest chapter of a years-long saga involving their Dunrovin Ranch and an enigmatic state law known as subdivision for lease or rent.
“We never wanted it to get to this point, ever,” said Landquist, who’ll serve her second stint as chair of the three-person Missoula County Commission in 2013.
Rather than order all commercial operations on the Millers’ property closed, as the county has sued to do, District Judge Ed McLean on Friday opted to appoint a mediator to see if the two sides can reach an agreement. No date has been announced for that meeting.
Landquist, who lives and raises sheep in Lolo a couple of miles from Dunrovin, said the commissioners have been involved with the Millers’ issues since she took office five years ago.
“We have really bent over backward to try to help them help themselves,” she maintained.
Landquist said she has personally urged the Millers to enter into a compliance agreement that “sets out what you’re going to fix first, second, third and fourth and a timeline for getting those things fixed.”
The commissioners sent their final enforcement letter to the Millers last May outlining a number of safety and health violations that needed to be addressed to avoid legal action. The county attorney’s office filed a complaint in December requesting a preliminary injunction against Dunrovin.
Commissioner Jean Curtiss said she and her colleagues have a formal meeting almost weekly with the county attorney’s office.
“This (litigation) was one of subjects that’s come up off and on,” Curtiss said. “We keep saying, are you sure? Can’t (the Millers) do something? Are they willing? We encouraged them to wait as long as we could, looking for some kind of compromise for beginning steps toward compliance.”
Missoula County has a “logical and legal progression” to establish a commercial operation, Landquist said.
In this case, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality says an application for a new Certificate of Subdivision Approval through the county health department and DEQ must be preceded by subdivision review. The Millers have filed a COSA application that details how they’ll upgrade their septic system.
But the health department can’t begin processing it until they’ve been through subdivision review, a process they only recently entered into after leading the outcry against the county and state’s interpretation of subdivision for lease or rent.
“I agree it’s a confusing and bad state law,” Landquist said. “It’s written very vaguely, and it’s very difficult to interpret let alone enforce. But it’s state law nonetheless, and we took an oath of office to uphold state and federal laws. Even our own county attorneys remind us and hold us to that oath.”
That said, she added, “There’s a reason why the county says you have to start here and (take) this step and this step. The Millers continue to want to skip and rearrange the steps to suit their needs. From a liability standpoint I think we’d be crazy to not follow that logical progression. Otherwise they could come back and sue us.”
In interviews and in court, the Millers and their attorney Colleen Dowdall vehemently disagree with the county’s tactics. They’re on board to upgrade their septic system, which the health department says is woefully inadequate to handle the 2,000 annual visitors to the ranch.
Since the county drastically reduced the cost of the minor subdivision review last year and made other allowances in the subdivision for lease or rent, they’ve launched that process in the past six weeks as well.
Landquist said if the Millers expanded their septic system but were later denied their subdivision application, “they could sue us and say, ‘We spent all this money upgrading our septic system and what good is it?’ ”
The commissioners and James McCubbin, the deputy county attorney prosecuting the case, say they couldn’t afford to wait any longer to file to halt operations at Dunrovin without risking sanitation problems or a lawsuit faulting them for failing to uphold the county’s own regulations.
Judge McLean took it all into account before asking the opposing sides to try to reach a settlement agreement.
“If it can be done, then fine, let’s try and get it done,” he told the Millers’ attorney, Colleen Dowdall, on Friday. “If it can’t be done then the City-County Health Department or the (Office of Planning and Grants) want to enjoin your clients from doing something that might be very detrimental to the environment out in Lolo. With all due respect, that’s why we have these people.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.